- Social life-styles in caterpillars: Behavioral mechanisms and ecological consequences (2002)
- The present thesis investigates ecological advantages, ethological adaptations, and behavioral mechanisms connected with sociality in larval Lepidoptera. Data on social thermoregulation, larval communication, developmental benefits, and advantages of survival are presented to contribute to a better understanding of the evolution and maintenance of social systems in caterpillars. I put the main emphasis of this work on the highly social, tent building European lasiocampid moth Eriogaster lanestris. In a comparative study aspects of the social biology of E. lanestris were compared to its congener E. catax and the confamilial species Malacosoma neustria. In addition to these tent building, central-place foraging species a fourth, non-tent building nomadic butterfly species, Araschnia levana (Nymphalidae) was also studied. Caterpillars of E. lanestris are behavioral thermoregulators. In the laboratory (i.e. in the absence of solar radiation) tightly aggregated caterpillars are able to rise their body temperatures compared to ambient temperature for 2.5-3K. Temperature gains are based on metabolic heat production (Chapter 4). Under field conditions grouped caterpillars are able to stabilize their body temperatures between 30-35°C independent of ambient temperature as long as solar radiation is sufficient. Optimal body temperatures are achieved by changing positions in and on the tent frequently. The functionality of the tent is based on the reduction of convective heat exchange (Chapter 5). Foraging bouts of E. lanestris caterpillars are highly synchronized under field conditions. The number of foraging bouts is temperature dependent (influence on speed of digestion and walking). Plasticity in foraging patterns optimizes nutrient uptake and therefore minimize developmental time (Chapter 6). Caterpillars of E. lanestris use trail pheromones for communication. The pheromone is applied by dragging the ventral median sternite of the last abdominal segment over the substrate. Trails contain information about age and suitability of foraging sites, which is encoded by quantitative graduation of the trail marker (opposing processes of aging and (over)marking) (Chapters 7+8). Vibrations of the tent caused by the increasing restlessness of caterpillars at the end of the digestion phase turned out to be tightly linked to the emergence of larvae from the tent and are supposed to play a role for synchronizing the foraging bouts (Chapter 9). Costs of social behavior in E. lanestris are high under field conditions. Total colony mortality (i.e. the complete loss of a female’s offspring) of 100 exposed colonies was 48%. The majority of colony losses was connected to the previous loss of the tent, mostly initiated by heavy rainfalls (Chapter 10). Comparing E. lanestris to E. catax and M. neustria revealed that despite similar life-history traits and overlapping habitat requirements very different ecological strategies evolved with regard to egg size, tent building behavior, foraging strategies, and activity patterns (Chapter 11). Females of A. levana produce several egg clutches of different size over their life time. Caterpillar group size strongly influences development and survival. Single individuals develop more slowly and achieve smaller weights compared to groups of 10, 40 (=mean natural clutch size), or 80 individuals during the social phase of the caterpillars’ life (i.e. first to third instar). Mortality is highest in singly bred individuals and lowest in groups of 40. The advantage of grouping for survival is supposed to result from the strong collective regurgitation behavior which enables the caterpillars to ward off natural enemies (Chapters 12+13). The thesis shows with the example of E. lanestris that highly evolved social systems in larval Lepidoptera afford high parental and larval investment which may in turn lead to high advantages, e.g. with regard to large reductions in developmental time. The extended social phase requires highly sophisticated communication processes. In A. levana flexible egg deposition leads to higher plasticity with regard to the costs of sociality. Nevertheless, physiological and ecological advantages of group living are evident as well.